C-Side: A Labour of Lulz: Meme STONKing in/as Cultural Work
By Christine H. Tran
I. Stonks in Here
Among Twitter users, a text meme persists about “the main character of the day” and how you don’t want to be them. Don’t be “Bean Dad.” Don’t be “Wife Guy.” Don’t be the “Blue Checkmark with a Bad Take.” Don’t aggregate attention for the wrong Reasons™. Don’t feed the beast of Discourse™. This newsfeed-generated imagination of Twitter as a revolving cast of “main characters” appeals to the long-enduring construction of the internet as a “stage.”
In late January 2021, the “main character” on my Twitter feed became this man:
His star rose alongside the puzzling ascent of scary “meme stocks,” “GameSTONK” and the ominously simple “Wall Street” as inscriptions upon the “What’s happening” column of my Twitter feed. It was these keywords which prompted many users to recast themselves as the character of “financial expert,” laid out as such: somewhere on a Reddit community r/WallStreetBets, members sought to game the short selling of struggling game retailer, GameStop. As of 26 January 2021, these Reddit-based shorteners1 cost the market an estimated $5 billion USD, with GameStop’s price jumping an unprecedented 680% in January alone (Li, 2021).
Visually, my Twitter captured this financial grammar via a flood of variations of this pale, smooth man before the math. The semiotics of him could comprise another paper: his blue-eyed whiteness, his sharp suit, and folded-over arms denote a social confidence and privilege that juxtaposes the inelegant utterance of “stonks.” There is also the quaintness of his rudimentary 3D graphics. The crude image mocks and brings into charming relief the absurd complexity of the financialization of social life with the simple memetic utterance of “stonk.” He is STONKS man, but we share space with his complex yet simplistically rendered artifice of figures. Or as this image made by Idill Calip of the Meme Research Network conveys:
Meme “STONKS,” as I have taken to calling this event, brings together many platforms: finance apps, Reddit, gamer culture (although the envelopment of GameStop was incidental: I know many people who thought it was targeted because the idea of a game retailer derailing the plans of billion-dollar hedge funds was funny; “meme stocks” as they are understood have been organized around many other non-gamer companies). GameStop was. Reddit was. Wall street was. Pre-STONKS, we might have imagined these places as separate (hell)sites of struggle. At best, memes were lunar satellites in this solar system of Serious Worlds™ , reflecting light and jokes like good moons should. Post-STONKS, memes read like the universe itself.
We might decipher these dramatic/memetic universes through the casting call of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s (2016) figuration of “Big Data” as a “Drama,” with “[o]ur roles changing constantly because of evolving plotlines determined by actions of others like us” (p. 363). For Chun, this “YOU” of big data is contoured by a contradictory “loss of mass identity and embrace of singular yet plural individuality” (p. 364). Just as creators find themselves locked into the policy and algorithmic ventures of their platforms, our everyday “plotlines” are locked into each other like a convoluted soap opera. My self-representation is “homed” into the politics of yours. It makes for a crowded cast.
Guided by the digital character(s) of the 2021 GameStop stonks event online—which I will abbreviate as “STONKS”—I consider the cultural work that memes perform and compel from users. The memetic form itself is a load-bearing pillar in the construction of platform politics. Moreover, the “meme stocks” event of 2021 reflects that “memeing” is a genre of cultural labour that is becoming more widespread with the increasingly digitized and synchronous nature of our public stage. Whether you are a stockbroker, policy writer, or a student organizer with a community Twitter page, the highly (re)productive role of memes reflects the increasingly platformized dramaturgy of our life scripts.
II. (News)Feed the Trolls
We wrote this immediately after being struck—but not at all surprised—by the role of Reddit in organizing STONKS. Disruption-via-message board was the dramatic centre of not only Wall Street in 2021, but also our classrooms in Summer 2020. Reddit boards became the site of struggle and organizing for Zoom Bombs, or the invasion of uninvited parties to meetings, events, or conferences held on Zoom. Proving that Reddit is no monolith, the site became an operation base for people to publish Zoom links and passwords to livestreams. Such swarming methods put academic seminars about gendered and racial targets particularly at risk.
I hosted an academic event that was “Zoom Bombed” in October 2020. I will never be exactly sure through which channel my passwords were publicized, or by whom. As a friend told me after, the Zoom link password was searchable on our academic community listserv. This could be decades old. Any number of people with any number of former affiliations with any number of actors. Like these Zoom Bombs, Reddit’s role in organizing STONKS-gate events was mobilized by literacies of trolling, part of what E. Gabriella Coleman (2012) described as the “aesthetic audacity” from which “a black hole is also created that helps shield these technologists from easy comprehension” (p. 102). One user’s drama of Big Data is another’s dark comedy.
There is a larger Twitterverse tendency to frame this as “because of the lulz.” As the work of Whitney Phillips (2019) on meme audacity cautions us to ask: lulz for whom? Coleman (2014) characterizes “lulz” as “a deviant style of humour and a quasi-mystical state of being” (p. 2). Elaborating on the mystique of trolling, Kelly Bergstrom (2011) reminds us that terms like “troll” have also been used as shorthand to call out off-script behaviour in online communities. Trolling is both mundane and mystical, but its current form has clashed with the white walls of cultural gatekeeping.
For those critical of capitalist accumulation processes, the idea of hedge fund managers being foiled did inspire “lulz”. Yet when we broadly think of meme culture with its “wojacks” and “That Feel When No GF,” we construct the face of underclass people very specifically. We get that image: pasty alignments with masculinized white pity. As both content and container, we should read memes as being as vulnerable to the contouring force of whiteness as any other medium:
III. Take Me(me) Seriously
For such a conduit of fun, it has been difficult to confirm a definition of “memes,” which reflects all the fuss. Shifman (2014) helpfully defines memes as the “socially constructed public discourse” (p. 8) of our Internet’s extended argument. Elsewhere, Denisova (2019) offers “symbolic rhetorical arguments” (p.3), or “context-bound viral texts that proliferate on mutation and replication” (p. 10) as maps of memes’ meanings. At a glance, such definitions do not immediately elicit our colorful and current digital ecosystem of Pepes, Doge dogs, Grumpy Cats, Sitting Bernies, or any number of the dynamic characters that adorn the memecosystems. This categorical struggle shows how memes are hyper-contextual and dependent upon their participatory community. The work of makers and readers enlivens memes from blank “units” and into the infrastructure we loathe, love, and laugh at. Memes, like games and an increasing amount of work(ers), are platform dependent.
In 1976’s The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (who is, ironically, arguably as famous for being the face of this meme) conceived the word “meme” to work through what he saw as the “need” for a term “that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (emphasis Dawkins, 1989, p. 192). This construction of meme as a “unit,” like the idea of the internet as a stage of characters, has likewise proven attractive.
Dawkins tried to build the meme as this cultural counterpart to the way viruses and organisms move and reproduce themselves through biological ecosystems (this is from the man who describes the cultural ecosystems of meaning as “soup,” after all). Of course, this construction of the meme as “unit” also performs two layers of problematic cultural work: (1) it overly prescribes memes as finite shapes, predetermined to be blocks into a larger whole rather than infrastructure in themselves; and (2) overly essentializes a binary between culture and biology.
Culture is not simply the Bizzaaro Superman of “biology.” As COVID-19 memes prove, the relationship between organisms and social organizations is much more porous. Memes, etymologically, convey the membranous reality of this arrangement between our selves and stages. In the context of gaming subcultures, online pejoratives that originated in Reddit, like “titty streamer” (Ruberg et al., 2019) and “egirls” (D’Anastascio, 2019), transform memes into their own keywords of content creation. Yesterday’s meme slur can be tomorrow’s keyword to success. When your favourite brands started posting “Bernie Sitting Down” memes in January, the ability to be on the “pulse” of memetic humour accelerated as part of the social media skillset underwritten into your CV.
Memes have ascended in critical texts of cultural production, amplified by the increasingly networked landscape of the cultural industries. David Hesmondhalgh (2013) binds his definition of the “cultural industries” to “the production of social meaning” and centred texts and their circulation” (p.15). Attempting to put parameters on this field of circulation between creative work and meaning, Hesmondhalgh emphasizes “texts” as conduits for meaning, or rather the primary good circulated in the broad economy we ascribe to creatives. With his emphasis on “circulation,” Hesmondhalgh reproduces a similar image of culture for us as Dawkins (!!!): culture is a finite space where texts/ideas—be they TikTok songs or Pepe jpegs—move like soup ingredients, suturing and brushing, blending and mushing up against each other in different flavours.
Memes animate value in real terms. Memes can pluck real-life characters—human and not—out of obscurity, as Abidin’s (2018) work on “meme celebrities” like Grumpy Cat illustrates. Today’s meme might be another pathway for tomorrow’s fame and monetization. Corporations and other interest groups will invest in professional “meme factories” for a variety of motives (Abidin, 2020). Scroll through Twitter, also, for any number of branded accounts that interface with audiences via memes. Amidst all these meme literacies in cultural work, would it be redundant to identify “meme stocking” as a genre of labour? Have we already snuck meme literacy into the vocabulary of every labour process? Isn’t value under capitalism already moving like a meme: ever accumulating, reproducing, and recalibrating itself into cruel absurdism? Is it, to quote Galips’ image again, all memes?
IV. Platform (De)Realism
As I attempt to summarize the culture keywords, memes and micro-texts that simulate the Redditt ecosystems, I frequently think of this sentence that Bonnie Ruberg, Amanda L.L. Cullen and Kathryn Brewster (2019) posit in their study of gender, sex, and legitimacy on r/Twitch: “the one form of capital that breasts repel rather than attract was authenticity” (p. 478). In times of social and economic uncertainty, memers are verified less by the blue checkmark of their platform, but rather the less visible, less tangible “figurative” checkmarks of repute from their social community. Given the highly masculinist discourse that dominates Reddit, what counts as “legitimate” social capital is reproduced along white and masculinized lines. The rise of STONKs memes beckons a deeper understanding of how these subcultural capitals and contestations over reality and legitimacy constitute each other.
Contrary to popular opinion, this was not a wholly “grassroots” Robin Hood-style reseizing of the memes means of production: everyday traders got a cut of the profits, sure, but there were also competing hedge funds that acquired $700 million from their competitors (Chung, 2021). STONKS is constellated as part of the larger financialization of social life. The dominant narrative that has emerged around STONKS has not really been a David and Goliath story; it’s rather the trolls under the bridge.
On 4 February 2020, financial media scholar Lana Schwartz went on the Big Tech podcast to call this event “infrastructural inversion,” extending Geoffrey C. Bowker’s (1994) term to describe these moments of hypervisibilization of a structure that was supposed to stay hidden. Schwartz also characterized Reddit as “a place where you go to be with other people who think that the stock market is really funny and enjoy placing kinda stupid bets, like literally gambling. They use a lot of ableist language, but basically to say ‘Let’s get really st*pid with our money and go all-in [time stamp 13:03].” As she goes on:
“[STS and media studies] all along argued that the market is an engine not a camera. There’s this classical economic idea that the market is a truth claim on reality: the economy goes up, a company does good, and its stock goes up, and it’s all very rational and it’s all very reflective of something that’s out there… but the market is actually an engine. It’s not a camera taking a picture of something out there in the world.”
Memes in their aural, visual, and financial form have become the cameras of the discourse economy. Most of us were not reading the finance literature or news follow-ups. In this crowded Twitter page, I think that visuals like memes provided an attractive waterfall of feeling connected and infotained about the power dynamics of this ongoing event. Memes acted as powerful infrastructural interventions, while themselves being infrastructures. As they continue to circulate through Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and other sites of memetic production, we have to ask: what kind of cultural work and sites of self-making are they carrying with them?
V. Who Pays the Scroll Toll?
The mantra of “Know Your Meme” is no longer just a website that indexes internet jokes. Rather, it is vastly becoming the invisible imperative of many job descriptions and prerequisites to comprehending stages of digital life. Does GameStop long for the days when its largest meme-media scandal was compelling its employees to make viral TikToks in exchange for more hours on Black Friday (Kastrenakes, 2020)?
As the US government monitors the situation on r/WallStreetBets, we might return to the less publicized role that Reddit boards played in a security concern that impacted academics in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: Zoom Bombs. When Reddit and Discord became hubs for bombers to publicize Zoom links and passwords to each other, institutions responded largely by downloading risk onto instructors and organizers. Candy-coloured infographics of “How to (Zoom Bomb) Proof your Classroom” are burned into my mind. While it is good etiquette to protect your passwords, these aesthetics of defense have little to say about the affective, social, and participatory forces that make “lulz at any cost” such an attractive MO against both ivory towers and Wall Street.
As of the time of writing, Discord servers linked to the organizing of r/WallStreetBets are being officially disabled due to social pressure (Castronuovo, 2021). The reach for managing “lulz” and meme attacks against bankers is supported by policy efforts in ways that attacks against racialized and gendered academic organizers are not. Now, as similar digital discourse tactics and depredatory logics infiltrate Wall Street, platforms are taking steps to moderate this swarm-style of organizing. Hell(sites) are other people.
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Christine H. Tran (they/she) is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. Their research explores the relationship between digital labour & domestic space in Canadian women’s livestreaming. Christine is a Research Assistant for Cultural Workers Organize and a Junior Fellow at Massey College
- ??: I really like this metaphor!
If the hedge fund traders of Wall Street are butter. The Redditors are the vegetable shortening version of financial analysts, trying to pass for the real thing, but lacking in ever so many ways. The media reporting of Redditors tried to pass them off as I-cant-believe-its-not-butter and that works so well.
Hinting at the poverty of means that ever so haunts the narrative.